Get this: when Sheri Holman began her third novel, The Mammoth Cheese, she and her husband had no children. Elizabeth Redmond ("Ella"), who is now 20 months old, was born when Holman had completed half the manuscript. When Holman greets us at the door of her once elegant, now visibly under renovation Federal-style house on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn, she is very pregnant with twin boys, due to be delivered on the book's pub date in September. "From the time I started Mammoth Cheese to the time it comes out, I'll have gone from zero to three children," a perky Holman exults. "How weird is that!"
Not weird, perhaps, but magically appropriate, since a major character in the novel gives birth to 11 children at once, unleashing a media frenzy in her small Virginia town. When the babies begin to die and criticism of the parents ensues, a pastor who urged their mother to carry all the fetuses to term conceives of a giant gesture to signal the town's redemption as well as its patriotic spirit. Margaret Prickett, the owner of a dairy farm on the verge of bankruptcy, will create a huge wheel of cheese modeled on the 1,235-pound Cheshire that was taken to Washington, D.C., during President Jefferson's term. The complications that follow, encompassing Margaret's daughter's alienation and near-seduction, a one-sided love affair and a tragic death, culminate in a beautifully written scene of redemption.
Grove is behind this novel to the tune of $100,000 ad/promo and a 21-city tour (although the latter will be quite a feat when the twins arrive). But readers who feasted on the bestselling The Dress Lodger, Holman's historical thriller set in 19th-century England, and the international (sales in 11 countries) audience for her debut, The Silent Tongue, based on the pilgrimage of a 15th-century monk to Palestine, may be surprised to discover that her third effort is historical only in its flashbacks to the Jefferson administration.
Holman herself is not allowing this possibility to deflate her general euphoria. "I never considered myself a historical novelist. I didn't want to be pigeonholed," she says. The entire spectrum of history interests her, even more so if she can make connections to the present. "Maybe it's because I was raised in the South," she says. "The past was so present in my life. I never made a distinction. Past and present are constantly in communication with each other."
Disturbed by the ecstatic press coverage given to the McCauley sextuplets ("a nice white Christian couple") as compared to the negative stories about a Nigerian couple living in Texas who became parents of eight, Holman began Mammoth Cheese as a work about American excess and the media culture. She was in the middle of the book on September 11, which she describes "as a disillusionment and awakening for me." When she resumed work after a hiatus, she had changed her focus. "It became about the difficulty of keeping any sort of idealism in the face of overwhelming corruption. I had to look at my country and the world in a completely different way."
Betrayal and disillusionment are major themes here, but they're not new for Holman, as her previous books also hinge on these life-changing factors. She cites this emotional catharsis as "the only thing that still surprises and affects me in literature." Inevitably for Holman this involves the paradox of religion. "It's something I struggle with in my own life: this desire to do good"—which often results in events that are tragic. Yet she identifies herself as "more of an optimist than a nihilist. Ultimately, I am hopeful for the human race. There's nothing more satisfying at the end of a novel than redemption." In each of Holman's works, this point is reached after dramatic events and interior reflection.
One of the most appealing characters in Mammoth Cheese is 13-year-old Polly Prickett, the unwitting victim of her mother's obsession with holding on to the family diary farm. While Margaret is preoccupied, Polly's well-being is endangered by a charismatic but irresponsible teacher. Though a refrain of merry laughter punctuates Holman's rapid-fire conversation, some dark memories come to light. She says that The Mammoth Cheese is her most autobiographical novel, based on her own mystification and heartbreak during adolescence because of a beloved history teacher who had recognized her as a bright pupil, encouraging her to think for herself and to question authority. One day he suddenly kissed her. Immediately afterward he began to ignore her in class, as though she had disappeared. "He was the best teacher I ever had, yet he betrayed me more than anyone ever had." Holman involves Polly in a similar situation, and wittingly or not, makes her the character who steals the novel.
Her bubbly personality notwithstanding, Holman confesses another autobiographical element that infuses her books. "All of my characters have the same uncompromising wish for perfection that I have, but I don't pursue it to the extent that they do." Holman says that her husband has described her best. He makes a distinction between academics and enthusiasts, and puts her someplace in between. "He calls me a serious dilettante. A subject can hold my interest for two or three years, which is the perfect amount of time to write a book, and then I'm ready for something else."
However limited her preoccupation with a historical period, it's the research even more than the writing than turns her on. "Researching is all about the possibilities and you have these grandiose ideas of what you're going to do in your novel. Then you're confronted by your own fallibilities and inability to re-create this grand scheme," she says, with unwarranted modesty. While a character in Mammoth Cheese is a Thomas Jefferson impersonator, and the cheese Margaret makes is a deliberate copy of the original sent to Jefferson, Holman researched only specific aspects of the third president's life for the novel. She hopes that there won't be too many Jefferson buffs in the audiences on her reading tour, asking questions outside of the novel's scope. Holman went thoroughly into the art of making cheese, however, taking a course and delving into methods used over the centuries. (A cheese press rests on top of her refrigerator.)
Researching A Stolen Tongue, her first novel, was more difficult. She was fascinated by a documentary on the pilgrimage of Father Felix Fabri, who journeyed to Palestine in 1430 to venerate the relics of St. Katherine in the Sinai desert, and she went there to see for herself. Only the first half of his journals had been translated into English, however. "That's where it helped to be married to a classicist," Holman quips. Her husband, Sean Redmond, who has a Ph.D. in classics and works at the Brooklyn Museum, translated huge passages of the second half. (His influence can also be discerned in the Latin motto for the Prickett dairy farm, which plays an important role in the plot. "He's quiet and scholarly,'' Holman says. "I'm, like, blah, blah, blah.")
The Dress Lodger had its genesis in a book, London Labour and the London Poor, that Holman came across while working as a temp in the marketing department of Penguin, one of her first jobs in New York. She was startled by a reference to a type of prostitute called a dress lodger and the woman deployed as her watcher. The image fascinated her. "A gaudily dressed woman being closely followed. Like your mortality following you through the streets." Holman jotted it down in her journal; eight years later, it morphed into her second novel. She set it in Sunderland, because that was the city where cholera entered England in the 1830s. As is her habit, Holman wanted to address a contemporary issue in a historical setting. During the cholera epidemic, people thought that the government had unleashed the disease to rid society of the poor. Holman saw a relationship to AIDS, which had similar rumors about its origin and motivation. Body snatching for the then-controversial use by medical students for autopsies is another important topic in the novel. Holman notes that we are still anxious about what happens to our bodies after we die. "There's a chronic shortage of people donating their bodies to science."
Holman is not a novelist who labors in an ivory tower. She puts her concern for the future of society into community activism. She's the distribution manager for her neighborhood chapter of CSA, a program that supports independent farmers by subsidizing their crops and buying their produce.
While Holman's concern with societal issues blossomed in fiction, she came to her career in a circuitous way. After her parents' divorce when she was 13, she and her sister were sent to stay with their paternal aunts every weekend. Going to their house was a time warp: there the Civil War still raged every day. Prejudice was a fact of life, contradicting Holman's burgeoning thoughts about civic justice.
Reading was a refuge, but there were few books at home. School libraries were the source of her keen interest in historical fiction and biographies of women. That debt was the reason she agreed to do a YA book set in ancient Korea for Scholastic's Royal Diary series at the same time she was working on The Mammoth Cheese. Trying to write simultaneously about cheese making and early Buddhism was not easy, she admits.
The first in her family to attend college, Holman majored in theater at William and Mary, with ambitions to be a Shakespearean actress. She moved to New York in 1988, right out of college, but she realized very quickly that acting was not for her. After working for a "disreputable" literary agent reading manuscripts for $5 each, she temped at Penguin for three years before deciding to write a novel. She quit her job, left her ATM card with a friend who was supposed to wire her money in an emergency, and went to Greece. When she returned after four months and about 100 pages of "a really bad novel," she discovered that her friend had drained her bank account. At that bleak moment, another friend told her that agent Molly Friedrich was looking for an assistant. She worked for Friedrich for five years, citing the experience as "how I learned how to write."
After she finally worked up the courage to ask Friedrich to look at the novel she had started in Greece, Holman thought she had hit rock bottom when her boss handed her back the manuscript, "and slowly shook her head." Still, Friedrich agreed to send it out to one editor, Marion Wood, who sent Holman a three-page rejection letter. "I slept with it under my pillow. It was very honest, but encouraging."
Undaunted, Holman began getting up at five in the morning to write A Stolen Tongue. Friedrich knew it was good, but thought the story of an obsessed monk would be a hard sell. The book was turned down by 13 publishers. Holman sat in the office day after day waiting for the phone to ring. "I cried and cried," she says. However, bids came from FSG and Grove. "Going with Morgan Entrekin was the best move of my life," she says. Ebullience resonates when Holman talks about Friedrich; Entrekin; Celia Lalli, her first editor at Grove; and Elizabeth Schmitz, who edited The Mammoth Cheese.
She credits the same kind of luck in finding the house in Brooklyn, a handsome edifice whose central rooms, resplendent with ceiling molding, gorgeous fireplaces and stained-glass windows, was built in 1809, the year Lincoln was born, with later additions. Despite its general dilapidation when they bought it, Holman and her husband, who is also from the South, recognized the feel of an old, cobbled-together Southern mansion. "The front porch looked like Tara after the war," Holmes says. "All our money goes into this house. It's definitely our Monticello, in a state of perpetual renovation."
Not one to waste a second, Holmes is eagerly researching a new book, which she describes as "a multigenerational ghost story about the ways we pass along fear." Given that rats appeared in the basement when she wrote about plague-infested England, and that the topic of fertility and fecundity has resulted in three babies, setting her next book during the Depression may be a risk. Her husband has joked that Holman shouldn't "do that" to the country, urging her to write about winning the lottery instead.
So far, Holman is unfazed. Give her an idea and a historic period to research, and she radiates energy and the zeal to sink deep into research. That street in Brooklyn will soon be breeding more than children.